Tutorial: Choosing and Using A Tripod

Sharpness improves the overall quality of a photo. In the tutorial which we explored how to avoid camera shake, we touched on using tripod that could result in a huge difference in photo sharpness. This tutorial will focus on how to choose a tripod and how to make the most of your tripod.


Long Exposure Water Movemnt
An example of when tripod is needed: capturing the silkiness of water movement through long exposure setting while retaining sharpness in surrounding details.

So when exactly do we need to use a tripod? Here are some occasions, which of course is not an exhaustive list when tripod could become your best friend:
• As a rule of thumb, photo taken with shutter speed slower than 1/40s. It would be quite impossible for human hands to remain steady for slower shutter speed;
Zooming a subject also means magnifying camera movement. A general rule of thumb is to have a minimum shutter speed that equals one over focal length. For example, if the focal length is set to 50mm, the minimum recommended shutter speed should be 1/50s;
• Long exposure photos aimed at capturing motions, for example smoothing the flow of water of a waterfall;
• Panorama shots (for post-process stitching) require camera to be mounted on a levelled tripod to ensure photos are taken at the same level;
• High dynamic range photos where multiple photos of the same subject taken at different exposures will be merged into one;
• Time lapse photography where multiple shots will be combined to produce animation; and
• Working with a lens which doesn’t have image stabilisation (IS) or vibration reduction (VR) feature.


So what kind of tripod should you go for? The top considerations when choosing a tripod are:

Sturdiness. A tripod in essence is used to provide stability to camera mounted on top.  Sturdiness of a tripod will depend on (1) the number of sections in the legs; (2) the weight of the tripod (and sadly, the heavier the tripod the more stable it is); (3) the length of the legs; (4) the material of the tripod. The best way to decide if a tripod is sturdy is to try it. Tapping and applying weight on a tripod can quickly gauge if a tripod will shake or vibrate when exposed to minor movement (or even strong wind) or sway under heavy load.

Weight. Experience educated me that the most useful tripod is the one you will carry with you most often, and the one deciding factor is the weight of a tripod. Portability is especially important for landscape photographers since it is one equipment which will be carried over long distance. However, as mentioned above, sturdiness and weight are closely related. It really is an individual preference to how much sturdiness he/she is willing to sacrifice in exchange for greater portability. If lightweight tripod is priority, I will always suggest carbon fibre tripod which also tends to be more expensive.

Ease of use. How easy and quickly a tripod can be setup? Does it require a few twists and adjustments before a desired angle can be achieved? These questions are important as tripod should act as an assisting tool but not a hindrance before a photo opportunity is missed.  

Other considerations:
Number of sections: The more sections the tripod, the less stable it is, and the more time it takes to set it up;
Maximum tripod height: Measured against your body height as you will not want to end up crouching your body and exposed yourself to photography hazard; and
Minimum tripod height: Important for macro photographer where close to ground shots are normally taken.


Pan-tilt or ball? Pan-tilt or ball?
 Pan Tilt HeadBall Head

Pan-tilt head (left) and ball head (right). Source: Manfrotto 

Pan-tilt is great as it offers independent control to movements along all three axes – horizontal rotation, vertical rotation, and forward-backward rotation – which also means greater control of the desired angle. However, as it involves adjusting at least two levers in any given time, pan-tilt heads are not ideal for capturing moving objects where constant adjustments are needed.

Ball heads on the other hand offer free movement in basically any direction quickly and easily. However, ensuring the tripod is levelled is almost impossible with ball head. So for panorama enthusiasts, pan-tilt maybe a better option.

Creeping, a phenomenon where camera is gradually sliding down from a locked tripod head under heavy weight, is a common issue with tripod heads. This issue poses a huge problem to long exposure photography. Based on experience, creeping is more pronounce when tripod head is set to portrait orientation. To test how well a tripod head performs under heavy weight and whether creeping prevails, try taking photos with exposure of 20s or more. If ghosting or camera shake appears, then it is a clear sign to creeping.


There is no reason why someone would want to go for an aluminium tripod other than its carbon fibre counterpart except for the cost. Carbon fibre tripods are (1) Lightweight; (2) Sturdy as it dampen vibration; and (3) more comfortable to handle in cold climate.


• Add more weight. Tripod normally comes with a tiny hook for you to hang your camera bag, bag of rocks, bottle of water, or simply anything that could add more weight and thus increase stability of the tripod. However, be careful to select material that doesn’t swap due to wind;
• Avoid using centre column as it is more susceptible to movement;
• Spread the legs as wide as possible to improve stability;
• Extend the thickest legs before the thinner legs
• Extend legs only to height needed as the higher the tripod is setup, the more unstable it becomes;
• Set up tripod on firm and non-slippery surface if possible to avoid legs from slipping or sinking into ground.

Tripods I Own
Tripods I own. Rotate clockwise from top left: Joby Gorillapod, Minipod, Manfrotto Carbon Fibre 732CY, Manfrotto 055XPROB with 804RC2 head.

So much about the legs, the heads, the materials etc., so what do I use? Over the past years, I have own a sort-of minipod, both aluminium and carbon fibre tripods of different heights, gorilla pod. In fact, I have more tripods than lens, although most of them now are no longer in use after new favourite displaces old ones. Currently the only tripod I am using is Manfrotto 732CY carbon fibre tripod legs with Manfrotto MH293A3-RC1 pan-tilt head. The head comes together with the tripod legs and I am not bothered to replace it, although it’s slightly heavy. The tripod overall offers optimum height for my need, and most importantly lightweight thanks for carbon fibre legs, and trust me, it makes all the difference. The only useful tripod is the one that you carry with yourself, and I have carried this for my 4-day hike around the Alps.


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